The Settlement of Spanish Florida

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There were many failed attempts to explore and settle the Southeastern United States between 1513 and 1565.  Below is a comprehensive list of the major documented European expeditions launched either to explore or settle in what would later become the colony of Spanish Florida after the establishment of the first permanent colonial city of St. Augustine in 1565.  For a map showing selected locations from the expeditions below, see the Maps page.

Juan Ponce de León, 1513

This exploratory expedition was sent from the island of Puerto Rico in search of the fabled island of Bimini, and accidentally resulted in the discovery of the landmass that Ponce named "Florida" in honor of the day of its discovery (Easter, or "Pascua Florida").  The expedition visited the middle and lower Atlantic coast of Florida, and rounded the Florida Keys to visit the Charlotte Harbor vicinity of Southwest Florida before returning to Puerto Rico.

Pedro de Salazar, ca. 1514-1516

This exploratory expedition sailed the island of Hispaniola in search of new sources of American Indian slaves, and resulted in the capture of as many as 500 Native Americans from an island along the Atlantic coastline subsequently known as the "Island of Giants."  Though few survived long after their return, the information gathered on this voyage set the stage for later Atlantic exploration.

Diego Miruelo, ca. 1516

This exploratory expedition is very poorly documented, but may have been launched from Cuba in search of slaves along the western coast of Florida.  The expedition documented and named at least one large bay along the northern Gulf coastline, though several later expeditions had great difficulty in identifying it. The following year Juan Ponce de León was engaged in a lawsuit against Cuban governor Diego Velázquez del Cuellar for having allowed 300 Florida Indians to be captured and brought illegally to Cuba, and this might possibly have resulted from Miruelo's expedition.

Alonso Alvarez de Pineda, 1519

This exploratory expedition was sent by Jamaica governor Francisco de Garay in order to explore the coastline between Ponce de León's Florida and Hernán Cortés' New Spain (Mexico).  The four-ship exploratory expedition charted the entire northern Gulf of Mexico, resulting in the first map showing the Gulf.  The information gathered on this trip foreshadowed the subsequent expedition of Pánfilo de Narváez below. 

Juan Ponce de León, 1521

This colonizing expedition was the first formal Spanish attempt to settle Florida, and involved a total of two ships with 200 colonists.  The expedition landed somewhere in the vicinity of Fort Myers, Florida before being repulsed by a Calusa Indian attack which mortally wounded Ponce de León himself.  Ponce withdrew the expedition and sailed to Cuba, where he died in the recently-established city of Havana.  The expedition was abandoned thereafter.

Francisco Gordillo and Pedro de Quejo, 1521

This exploratory expedition was yet another Spanish slaving expedition which sailed northwest from the Bahamas (the two independent ships from Hispaniola joined forces after meeting in the Bahamas) in search of the land that Pedro de Salazar had discovered on his earlier slave raid.  They captured some 60 slaves from the lower Atlantic coastline before returning to Hispaniola together.

Pedro de Quejo, 1525

This exploratory expedition was specifically dispatched by Lúcas Vázquez de Ayllón as a reconnaissance expedition for his planned colonial attempt to the Atlantic coastline visited earlier by Gordillo and Quejo.  Quejo sailed along much of the eastern coast of North America before returning with extensive intelligence about this region.

Lúcas Vázquez de Ayllón, 1526

This colonizing expedition was the second formal Spanish attempt to settle Florida, and involved six ships with 600 colonists.  The expedition established the new town of San Miguel de Gualdape, possibly somewhere along the middle Georgia coastline, near the end of September.  Nevertheless, Ayllón's subsequent death and a number of internal and external disputes doomed the colony to failure.  The survivors fled by the end of October, though only a quarter of their number ever made it back to the Caribbean.

Pánfilo de Narváez, 1528

This colonizing expedition was originally intended to settle along the northwestern Gulf coast just north of Cortés' New Spain colony, but severe storms drove the fleet to Tampa Bay on Florida's west coast, where the members of the expedition tried in vain to discover Diego Miruelo's bay, and eventually marched overland to the land of the Apalachee Indians at modern Tallahassee.  From there, the expedition constructed improvised barges and attempted to skirt the northern Gulf coast toward northern Mexico, though most died along the way.  Eight years later, Alvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca and three surviving companions finally reached Mexico City after wandering in an epic journey across the interior of Texas and northern Mexico.

Hernando de Soto, 1539-1543

This exploratory expedition was designed to explore a broad region of southeastern North America in order to select the most suitable site for permanent settlement.  Soto's expedition pushed rapidly inland toward the mountainous region that he hoped would produce riches on the same scale as his previous experience under Francisco Pizarro in Peru.  The expedition sailed from Cuba with nine ships and about 600 people, mostly soldiers.  Landing in Tampa Bay, the expedition seems to have followed Narváez's initial trajectory, marching inland and northward toward Apalachee.  From there the expedition pushed deep into the interior Southeast, establishing an anticipated rendezvous point at Pensacola Bay for future resupply expeditions from Cuba.  Repeated Cuban attempts to establish contact with Soto's lost expedition failed, while the expedition wandered for more than three years across much of eastern North America.  Only half of the expedition's members ultimately survived to sail out the Mississippi River and along the Gulf coastline to Mexico.

Luís Cancer, 1549

This missionary expedition was as non-military as its predecessor had been military.  Dominican missionary Fray Luís Cancer was granted permission to lead an expedition from Veracruz, Mexico consisting of four Dominican priests and one farmer in the attempt to establish a purely religious settlement along the Florida Gulf coastline, with the goal of spiritual conversion rather than military conquest.  Though he cautioned the ship's pilot not to bring him near any place where Spaniards had already landed, the ship ultimately landed precisely where both Narváez and Soto had made landfall in the vicinity of Tampa Bay.  Following the capture and murder of one priest and the farmer, Cancer himself was clubbed to death on the shore in sight of the ship, and the expedition withdrew in failure.

Tristán de Luna y Arellano, 1559-1561

This colonizing expedition was the first royally-financed colonial expedition to attempt the settlement of Florida, and also the first such colony to be staged from Mexico.  With a total of eleven ships and 1,500 soldiers and colonists, it was also the largest to date.  The expedition's ultimate goal was to head off an anticipated French settlement by establishing a Spanish colony at Santa Elena along the modern South Carolina coast (originally visited and named in the leadup to the Ayllón debacle).  However, the strategy adopted was first to establish a colonial town along the northern Gulf coast at modern Pensacola Bay (then called Ochuse), and push inland to the famed Native American chiefdom of Coosa visited by the Soto expedition, and finally eastward to Santa Elena on the Atlantic coast.  Only five weeks after landing, however, the expedition's fleet (and much of it's food onboard) was devastated by a hurricane, and the next two years were marked by attempts to stave off starvation, including the relocation of the bulk of the colonists inland to central Alabama, the dispatch of soldiers to Coosa in northwest Georgia in search of food, and multiple resupply expeditions from Veracruz.  Most of the colony departed by the time Luna's replacement Angel de Villafañe sailed for Havana and Santa Elena in 1561, but the last remnants were finally withdrawn following the return of the failed Villafañe expedition below.

Angel de Villafañe, 1561

This exploratory expedition departed from Havana with four ships and about 100 men (not counting an additional ship that sailed later), and briefly explored along the Atlantic coast in the vicinity of Santa Elena, in fulfillment of the original order for the Luna expedition.  Beset by storms that sank two of the ships, the expedition failed to leave a Spanish presence at Santa Elena.

Jean Ribault, 1562-1563

This first French exploratory expedition to Florida contained three ships  cruised along the Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina coastlines before leaving a small garrison of 28 men in the newly-constructed Charlesfort at Santa Elena (Parris Island).  The fort was abandoned in 1563 when the survivors decided to return to France.

Hernando Manrique de Rojas, 1564

This Spanish exploratory expedition was sent north from Cuba in search of evidence of the rumored French settlement, and cruised the Georgia and South Carolina coast during the summer before finding the ruins of Charlesfort at Santa Elena, along with a sole French survivor who would later act as an interpreter for Spanish settlers.

René de Laudonnière, 1564-1565

This French colonial expedition established a garrisoned fort near the mouth of the St. Johns River near modern Jacksonville, Florida, where Jean Ribault had visited two years previously.  Three ships containing some 300 men landed in June, quickly constructing Fort Caroline along the river.  Over the course of the next year, the colony interacted extensively with surrounding Native Americans, but lack of supplies left them in a precarious position by the time an English fleet traded badly-needed supplies for most of the French cannons.  When French supplies and reinforcements finally arrived under Jean Ribault in August, Spanish forces under Pedro Menéndez had already landed to the south, ultimately leading to the annihilation of the French colony.

Pedro Menéndez de Avilés, 1565

The final (and only successful) Spanish expedition to colonize Florida was financed by both royal and private funds, and was led by Pedro Menéndez de Avilés.  Five ships and some 800 soldiers and colonists arrived along the northeast coast of Florida in late August, where they ultimately slaughtered much of the French colonial force before establishing St. Augustine, which would become the first permanent European colonial city in Florida.  From this port and administrative center, colonial Spanish Florida would grow over the course of the following decades, up to and including the short-lived Spanish town of Santa Elena (1566-1587) and three-succesive Veracruz-based Spanish presidios at Pensacola Bay (after 1698).

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